How Can We Do the Most Good?

How Can We Do the Most Good?

There’s a new TV show out called “Adam Ruins Everything,” where comedian Adam Conover shares everything that’s factually incorrect — and even harmful — about topics like security, cars and food. The first episode is entitled “Adam Ruins Giving,” and in it, he talks about why canned food drives are a terrible idea, why Tom’s Shoes is not so generous, and why  you shouldn’t give blood immediately after a disaster.

Why? Because, as he says, many of the ways we give aren’t about the people we are trying to help — they are designed simply to make us feel good.

Yes, when we give, we do feel a nice, warm glow. But unlike the Christian concept of “charity,” which comes from the word “caring,” Judaism talks about tzedakah, which is about justice. Making a donation shouldn’t be about making ourselves feel good — it should be about making the world better.

That’s why there’s an emerging movement called “Effective Altruism,” with two new books on how we can do the most good. My former professor, Peter Singer, just wrote The Most Good You Can Do, and Will MacAskill has written Doing Good Better.

Both authors argue that when we give, we shouldn’t be focused on an emotional attachment to a cause. Instead, we should use reason and evidence to determine where we donate our money. As Singer says,

Effective altruists will feel the pull of helping an identifiable child form their own nation, region, or ethnic group but will then ask themselves if that is the best thing to do. They know that saving a life is better than making a wish come true and that saving three lives is better than saving one. So they don’t give to whatever cause tugs most strongly at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have available. (p. 6-7)

On one level, there’s something very powerful about effective altruism. We have limited resources, so we do need to ask, “How can we do the most good with the money we have?” Yet there’s also something about it that leaves me a little cold.

Perhaps that’s because as humans, we are not purely rational creatures. We respond to emotion, and consciously or not, that’s often what drives our giving. But when we do aim to be more aware of the potential impact of our donations, and use reason rather than emotion to make our decisions, then we will ultimately make more our world more just.

So what do we do? How do we balance reason and emotion when it comes to giving?

The truth is, we often conflate two related but distinct Jewish values  when it comes to giving. So if we can make the differentiation, we can more easily embrace effective altruism.

One value is tikkun olam — the repair of the world. It has become one of the most common values espoused, especially in many liberal Jewish circles. The problem is that tikkun olam has become everything from food drives to donation appeals to advocacy letters. And when we stop to think about it, not every good deed makes a huge impact on the world.

Yet every good deed is something positive, and it does help a small group of people. So rather than saying every small good deed is “an act of tikkun olam,” we need to reclaim the language of small, intimate acts that influence those closest to us. We should instead call these actions “acts of g’milut chasadim, loving kindness.”

Will donating winter clothes going to change the world by itself? Of course not. But it is going to influence both the donor and the recipient. It will lead us to view ourselves as a giving person, and should inspire us to do more. And it will help that one person get through those February snowstorms a little more easily.

But if we are aiming to truly change the world, then we do need to think more broadly and more rationally. We need to ask, “How much good can my money do?” Yes, if we send $36 to Against Malaria, we may never see the pictures of the people we are helping or feel that warm glow. But that $36 can provide 12 bednets and protect 21 people from malaria for three years.

So as we give, yes, we should feel good about our donations. But when it comes time to donate our hard-earned money, let’s at least pause and think about whether we are donating to make ourselves feel good, or to do good…and then to do it in the most effective way possible.

(This post first appeared on My Jewish Learning’s Rabbis Without Borders blog. It is also part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum — a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series, “Why Do People Do Bad (and Good) Things?”).


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